Ask Hamilton: Chattanooga Area State Parks

Dear Hamilton,

I’m new to Chattanooga and am an avid parkgoer. While I’ve been to many of the great parks here in the city, I’m eager to keep exploring – even if it means a decent drive. I’d especially love to learn more about state parks. Are there any nearby, and what can you tell me about their history?


Ready to Road Trip

vintage postcard of harrison bay state park

Vintage postcard of Harrison Bay State Park, Courtesy of Tennessee State Library & Archives

Dear Ready to Road Trip,

If you’re looking for state parks, you’re in the right place! Tennessee is home to 57 state parks, and it’s no surprise that the Chattanooga area and its many scenic views of lakes, mountains, and waterfalls are included in this lineup. There are five state parks located within an hour’s drive of Chattanooga, and three are right here in Hamilton County – no road trip necessary!

The oldest of these is Harrison Bay State Park. When it was established in 1937, it not only became the first state park in Hamilton County, but the first ever state park in Tennessee! It was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a government work relief program created during the Great Depression to supply jobs through environmental improvement projects. Their efforts resulted in the 1,200-acre park that visitors enjoy today. Harrison Bay State Park features 40 miles of shoreline along Chickamauga Lake plus amenities that day-use visitors and campers alike enjoy such as a walking path, golf course, marina, and more.

view from edward's point on signal mountain

View from Edward’s Point on Signal Mountain, a segment of the Cumberland Trail, Courtesy of Tennessee River Gorge Trust

Booker T. Washington State Park became Hamilton County’s second state park a year later as the CCC continued its work. Also situated along Chickamauga Lake, the park was originally established as an African American state recreational center and was named in honor of famous leader and educator Booker T. Washington. After a 1950 dedication that debuted recreational infrastructure, park visitation soared from 16,000 annual visitors to 85,000 by 1960. Today, visitors continue to enjoy recreation across its 353 acres, which now include a swimming pool, picnic area, playground, and six-mile singletrack trail for mountain bikers.

Though Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park stretches hundreds of miles across Tennessee, it ends up right in our backyard. Winding its way through the ridges and gorges of the Cumberland Plateau, the trail was designated a State Scenic Trail in 1971, and in 1998, became Tennessee’s 53rd state park. At an impressive 33,500 acres, the Cumberland Trail is Tennessee’s largest state park. It is also the only linear state park, running vertically across Tennessee through 11 counties, including our very own Hamilton County. While it’s still a work in progress, once complete, the trail will stretch 300 miles from Cumberland Gap at the Kentucky border to the nearby Tennessee River Gorge. To hike a segment of the Cumberland Trail, pay a visit to Signal Mountain and enjoy front-row seats to views of our city’s stunning scenery.

cherokee heritage celebration at red clay state park

Cherokee heritage celebration at Red Clay State Park, Courtesy of Tennessee State Parks

Half an hour away is Red Clay State Historic Park, a site that commemorates and celebrates the Cherokee Nation. Red Clay was the last seat of the Cherokee government before the 1838 enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. From 1832 to 1837, the Cherokee Nation held 11 general councils at Red Clay. Here, they learned that they had lost their land and would be forced westward on the Trail of Tears. Nearly 150 years later, the Cherokee would meet once again at Red Clay during the Cherokee Council Reunion. Today, Red Clay is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a certified site and interpretive center on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. To learn more about this land’s important history during your visit, be sure to check out the park’s museum and historic replicas.

drawing of booker t. washington state parkDrawing of Booker T. Washington State Park, 1940, Courtesy of Tennessee State Library & Archives

Last, but certainly not least, is the Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park, situated an hour east of Chatta-nooga. Named after the two rivers that run through it, the park is a hot spot for outdoor recreation. Whitewater rafting has drawn visitors to the park since 1977 and garnered international acclaim, thanks to the Ocoee River’s rushing rapids. Most notably, the Ocoee hosted the 1996 Olympics Whitewater Competition and made history as the only in-river venue the event has used to date. To create a world class course, a section of the riverbed was engineered to produce powerful rapids worthy of this elite competition – rapids you can still raft today, if you dare.

Between these five state parks and an abundance of other scenic and historic parks in and around our city, you’ll have plenty to explore!

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, Tennessee

You Also Might Like

[related_post post_id=""]
CityScope Celebrating 30 Years Logo

Get access to the next issue before it hits the stands!